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A Day in the Garden

August 21, 2013

by Stephen Damon

A couple of days ago I had an opportunity to spend a quiet hour in our garden with one of our non-English speaking residents. This was unusual as I have had very little interaction with this resident over the past few months that she has been with us, mainly because she always has an attendant or family member in her room and because she doesn’t speak English.  But I do go into her room several times a shift and wave to her, and she always smiles back. She always smiles and bows when I bring her lunch on Fridays. We are like neighbors in a big city that say hello to each other but never talk.

Most of our residents are not strong enough to get out of bed and make it downstairs to enjoy the wonderful flowers that one of our volunteers has planted, but this woman likes to sit in her wheelchair in front of the flowers nearly every afternoon.  Usually one of her kids or her private attendant takes her downstairs.  But the other day they were not around and one of the nurses asked me to accompany her to the garden.  Of course, I said yes.

I wheeled her to her favorite spot in front of the flowers and took a seat on a wooden bench next to her.  It was a warm, sunny day and we both moved our faces to get as much of the sun as we could.  I was in a short-sleeved polo shirt and she was bundled in blankets, a scarf, and a woolen hat.  We sat there in a very friendly, intimate silence that was interrupted only by an occasional bird song or a distant voice.

All of a sudden she waved her hands in the direction of a small sparrow and said something in Chinese.  I said “sparrow” and she laughed.  And then she pointed to a flower and said something in Chinese to which I responded “red flower.”  She laughed again.  Then she pointed to a plant that had no flowers and seemed to be asking me a question.  Using my hands I tried to ask her if she wanted a piece of it, to which she shook her head, “no.” She repeated her question several times and then we both relaxed into the deep silence of the afternoon.

We were both enjoying birds and flowers on a warm, summer’s day.  Nothing else mattered to us.  I wasn’t a volunteer at the Zen hospice project and she wasn’t an elderly Chinese woman, nearing the end of her life. We were companions, sharing  few precious moments in the infinity of time. She would never know my name nor where I was from or how I got to be sitting next to her and I would never know her story—how and when she came to America or how she supported herself when she was younger, or any of the thousand stories that she could tell me if we spoke the same language.  But that didn’t matter. We were just two people enjoying the beauty and peace of a warm summer’s day.

After about an hour, her daughter came over to us.  I asked her to ask her mother what she was asking me about the flowerless plant. Her mother said that she had asked me if I liked the plant.  I told her, yes, I liked it because it had no flowers.  After her daughter translated what I said, the old woman smiled broadly and gently bowed.  Part of me felt relieved to get the translation but a deeper part of me didn’t really care.  The meaning of our time together was much deeper than any word could translate.  Words and stories were completely beside the point.  We were just two neighbors sharing a private moment in a garden.  Nothing else mattered.



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